By: P.K. Agarwal
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in technology and government?
It was a fortuitous accident. I went to school at California State University-Sacramento to earn my master’s degree in engineering. Of course, the state capital is a government town. It just rubs off on you. I began to see the impact that the government can have. As an example, roughly a third of young children in California are assisted by WIC, a program that supports low-income pregnant women, those who have recently given birth, and young children. As an engineer, I could see how the transformative power of technology could amplify the value of streamlining and making the process more efficient. It’s very hard to imagine making this magnitude of impact in the private sector.
Decades later, the same kinds of opportunities exist in my current job at the UC Santa Cruz campus in Silicon Valley. We’re able to provide affordable professional education to people throughout the state and beyond.
What is your favorite class you have ever taken and why?
Learning how to speak in public changed everything for me. It forced me to think critically about the subject at hand and be reflective but also to be more assertive, and assess my personal style. It helped build my self-confidence so I became more expressive. When you are not comfortable with how to speak to groups, it limits your participation and your ability to collaborate. In addition to the mechanical part of delivering presentations, I’ve found that whether I’m talking to five people or 500, I have to think about what I’m saying. I have to ask myself, “Does it pass the test?”
What advice would you give to those interested in pursuing a career in technology?
One can be successful and make a difference in any career that one is passionate about. Technologists, however, have a tremendous societal reach. Every few generations, a new set of tools comes upon us that changes the fabric of society. The world looks radically different from the one of our grandparents. The industrial revolution is one such example. Technology and its derivatives such as clean tech, biotech, real estate tech, gov-tech, and other industries are upended by once-unimaginable technological changes. If you are interested in being an agent of change, flipping ideas on their heads, and creating new stuff, tech is the field for you.
What area of technology interests you the most?
I am truly fascinated with machine learning and AI, for the potential it has for doing both good and evil. It is not just another technology to be integrated into our businesses. AI is a radical departure. It is not only replacing many of the jobs that are predictable and repetitious, but it has moved into a higher level of knowledge domain. It would be fallacious to assume that AI/ML is yet another incremental step in the evolution of technology. It has the potential of recasting everything we do and think. A technological force this powerful can do a lot of good and a lot of evil. We need more people in public service to get involved with machine learning and AI so it can be harnessed and implemented in a way that works for people rather than subordinates them.
If you could have dinner with 3 people, who would they be and why?
For good music, good food, and to reaffirm our hope for humanity, I’d have to pick the Obamas—both Barack and Michelle—and, of course, my wife Nancy. We will have some good sushi and fine beverages. It would be fascinating to hear how the Obamas navigated the complexity of making change in a turbulent time and how they worked to bring people together. In politics, one can start with a great set of ideas, but you have to learn to compromise to find that middle ground to get enough people on board.
What is your favorite cuisine?
I love Japanese food for its flavor and elegance. Food is a form of art to not only be enjoyed but appreciated as a visual feast.
What is your favorite hobby or activity that you enjoy doing in your free time?
Tennis is my passion. I have been playing tennis for over 50 years.
What is the best movie you have seen?
I can never decide between the greats—Casablanca, The Godfather, and Shawshank Redemption. Each of them is an artistic masterpiece that captures my imagination in a myriad of ways. But, then there is also
12 Angry Men, which captures the human dimension so vividly.
Who in your life has been an influential mentor or inspiration for you?
I was fortunate to recognize the value of mentorship early in life and it has been an integral part of my life journey. Every time I’ve gone through a job change or a professional or personal challenge, I’ve sought out advice from other people. So there are way too many mentors to be able to name. I am so grateful to so many of these people for making my life much richer and more satisfying. Along the way, I learned that most people are willing to help you if you just ask.
What was your dream job as a child?
We all dream to fly and in that vein, I wanted to be a commercial pilot. As a child, I was fascinated with making and flying paper airplanes. Eventually, I did get a private pilot license and enjoyed the thrill of being up there. It only lasted a short while, however. In truth, it does get a little tedious to just sit there and fly for hours on end. Even the dream job loses its shine when the real world comes into play!
A celebrated technology and academic leader in Silicon Valley, PK Agarwal serves as the Dean of UC Santa Cruz Extension in Silicon Valley. Prior to this, he was the Dean and CEO of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley, where he oversaw the startup and growth of the University by creating innovative programs, working with major employers, and contributing the economic vitality of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Formerly, he was CEO of TiE Global, an organization dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship across 61 cities in 18 countries. Prior to his tenure at TiE, Agarwal served as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Chief Technology Officer for the State of California. Agarwal also serves as Chair of Future 500, a Bay Area-based pioneer in global sustainability.
Agarwal helped to pioneer the use of the Internet in government and has shaped national and state policy in this field, dating back to Al Gore’s National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council in 1995. He also served as President of the National Association of State CIOs and the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council (ec3).
He holds a Master of Science, Operations Research from UC Berkeley and a Master of Science, Mechanical Engineering from California State University-Sacramento. He attained a Bachelor of Technology, Mechanical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.
PK is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and an adjunct faculty member at USC and USF. He has the unique distinction of having a US national annual award named after him: The PK Agarwal Award for Leadership in Electronic Government. PK believes in giving back to the community and does so in a variety of ways, including mentoring and coaching students, professionals, and startups.